I did not know before I arrived in Thailand that its islands attract hardcore rock climbers. I saw lots of people scaling the walls on my day trip to Railay Beach, and when I learned that Koh Yao Noi has some of the best climbing around, I figured why not?
Until now, I have only ever climbed in a gym, not on real rocks, and even then I just rainbow up the wall using whatever hand and foot holds are easiest to reach. Obviously I was a little underprepared for what I had coming.
Many of the climbs on Yao Noi are located on private property owned by one of the island’s resorts, and some are accessible only via water and with special permission. I get the sense that a lot of very experienced climbers come here and manage all of this themselves, but I got hooked up with The Mountain Shop, which does half- and full-day trips to the cliffs as well as private guide hire.
I learned what “island time” means when I showed up at 8:45 am for my 9 am trip, waited for 15 minutes until two other climbers showed up, and then stood around some more until a guy passing by asked if we needed help. Obviously we were confused, so he came up and knocked on the door, and our guide emerged in boxers, rubbing his eyes, still half asleep. But no matter, we were in no hurry — and good thing, because we didn’t get on our boat until nearly 11 am.
So, everyone, meet Dut (pronounced “dude”), our awesome hippie climbing expert for the day:
He’s nearly 50 (no, I couldn’t believe it either), and yet he just bounced right up the walls like it was nothing. He says his secret is bird’s nest soup, and we then learned that for 19 years he had a career collecting birds’ nests from the caves just a few hundred meters off the island. The process involves a lot of climbing, so he’s been at this for decades.
A short but rough boat ride got us to the bottom of Grateful Wall, which I suppose is one of the most popular sets of climbs on the island and also one of the best views. The Amazing Race contestants climbed here just two days earlier, and Dut placed all the ropes for them. How cool is that?
There’s a platform built off a small ridge on the cliff, so we settled ourselves in while Dut and his assistant Boi (Boy? I could not make this stuff up) got everything ready for our first climb.
To set the mood, we had plates of tropical fruit and an iPod full of reggae music. Reggae is EVERYWHERE.
I refused to go first, so I watched while Marie and Paul, the couple I accompanied, took turns. I’m not really used to being the worst at things, and I was even more nervous when I realized that they are really good climbers. But this is what I came for — I put on my harness, tied all my knots, and got going.
Traveling alone means that I’m never in any of my own photos, so I’m pretty thrilled that someone else was there to capture the moment.
Climbing real rocks is easier in the sense that you can put your hands and feet anywhere and harder in the sense that there aren’t always nicely formed holds that are easy to spot. At least in the gym you can see where to go next — on the side of a cliff, you have to rely on intuition, previous chalk marks, and your guide’s voice from way down below. It is HARD.
I made it up about 2/3 of the way on my first climb and then was so shaky that I had to come down. My second round, which was just a few feet over to the right (if you can see the second rope in the picture above) was slightly better. Dut kept shouting “BALANCE” at me, and once I was safely back on the ground he explained what he meant. I know that you climb with your legs, but in practice I find it so much easier (more secure?) to pull with my arms. But on each successive climb I understood better how to turn, shift in a different direction, balance on a very small surface with minimal weight in my arms, and really push and pull with my leg strength.
We each did four climbs in all. I never made it to the top, but I did get pretty far on my last go, and on a 35 meter wall, that’s saying something. The last route started with a chimney, which we had to shimmy up sideways using our butts for support.
The views from up high weren’t half bad, either.
These GoPro shots are from the last climb as the rain was rolling in. It started to drizzle, and then pour, and I wanted to get down before the wall got too wet.
Since I was the last one to go on each climb, I also had to clean the wall on the way down, which meant an extra step to unclip all the support carabiners while still holding on. All in all, I felt like I made a lot of progress from the first climb to the last, which I’m particularly proud of because this is not an easy place for a novice to start.
And, ta-da, my first GoPro video! The quality is much better in the larger original than the compressed version posted on YouTube, but you get the idea.
On our way back to the pier, we stopped at a secluded beach to see the Big Tree. I cannot believe it’s possible for things to grow on such a massive scale.
Thailand is my adventure travel country on this trip (since I won’t make it to New Zealand), and I have many more fun activities planned in the coming weeks and months!